Prompt Hierarchy + Using Prompting Effectively

As special education teachers, we often need to give directions and help our students learn how to respond appropriately to complete a task. For example, how to use glue sponges or how to button a sweater.

We can start with the lowest level of prompting, or there are times when a behavior needs to be managed immediately, and we choose a higher level prompt. Essentially, we instruct students to work through tasks by adding supportive prompts and cue into the child’s instruction.

Prompt Hierarchy and how to use prompts effectively with students

With varying levels of student abilities, we need to be prepared as the teacher to not only provide the appropriate level of prompting, but to also have a plan for eventually eliminating or fading the prompt. The plan for prompt fading needs to begin at the start, and should be a meaningful part of every prompt decision.

As the teacher, you should also teach your paraprofessionals the importance of prompt hierarchy and prompt fading. It is imperative that everyone is on the same page.

what is a prompt subhead

When it comes to teaching your paraprofessionals, it is best to start at the very beginning.

A prompt is anything that is done after the initial directions are provided. As educators, we are trying to encourage self-regulation and independence in our students.

It’s important to remember, too, that not all prompting is “bad”. Every person needs prompting to learn new skills. And often times, a behavior is exhibited because a child does not understand how to complete a task or action we are asking the child to perform. Prompting can be used to teach those new skills, with the goal of the student eventually achieving mastery without prompting (i.e., independence).

For every prompt-dependent student, there has been a prompt-dependent teacher. Judy Endow.

Too much prompting can lead to what is known as “prompt dependency”, and we special education teachers see is frequently. For example, a student always needs a prompt to start an activity or skill, even if the child has already gained mastery. One idea to counteract this behavior is by giving the student an opportunity to try the task without the prompts, then start with the least invasive prompts whenever possible.

Prompting should, also, be used in conjunction with positive reinforcement. Focus on the positive statements to encourage the correct behavior. Then you, or your paraprofessional, can add in minimal prompting as needed to shape the behavior when necessary.

NOTE * The end result of everything we teach a child is for the child to be independent.

So we’re talking about prompting like we already know the leveling and how it works and what it looks like. However that may not always be the case. Let’s look at the prompt hierarchy.

Don’t forget to grab your FREE prompt hierarchy handout. It would be an excellent addition to a paraprofessional binder or your substitute plans.

In reference to how the hierarchy is presented, you will see the most invasive prompts listed first and the least invasive prompts near the end of the list.

Full physical prompting is for students who need full support to learn the action or activity. This prompting involves the student completing a task with hand-over-hand support from the teacher.

By guiding the hands of the student, we are helping them see how the task should be completed.

At this point, minimal physical supported guidance may be needed. You could hand the book to the student and point him towards the bookshelf where it needs to be put away.

A second example is a gentle motion to move the student’s body in the direction of where he needs to walk (i.e., towards the bookshelf to put the book away).

Model Prompting is showing the students how they should act and speak.

For example, you might walk to Ben’s desk, pick up a book, put the book away on the shelf, then walk to the carpet area to sit cross-legged with the rest of the class. As the teacher, you can model the behavior.

Another option is to use verbal reinforcement to bring attention to another student modeling the behavior, or even ask a student to demonstrate the task or direction for the classroom.

Gestural prompting indicates the desired behavior with a motion, such as pointing at the activity that you would like them to do. Any type of gesture can be used to show the next direction, task or step of action that needs to be followed by the student.

For example, pointing to the student’s homework and then pointing to the “finished assignments” box or folder where the homework needs to be delivered.

Be clear with your language to communicate the action that the student should take. You might tell the learner the correct answer to the question. Often, this direct verbal prompting should include step-by-step verbal prompts in the order that the tasks need to be completed.

For example, “Ben, please put your book away on the shelf and join the rest of the classroom on the carpet.”

verbal prompting subheader

Use words to help the student understand that something is expected, without telling them the details. For example, you might ask “What’s Next?” or “Now What?”

Another example is giving a verbal cue for the correct answer, such as the first sound or letter of the word.

Indirect prompting uses facial expressions or body language to communicate the actions that should be followed.

For example, “the look” (we all know what look I’m talking about), shrugging your shoulders to indicate a question, asking the student what they should be doing (without using words).

The end goal of everything we do as special education teacher is to have the child achieve independence with a task. This means that the child can perform the task with no prompting.

{ Grab the FREE Prompting Hierarchy Handout by clicking here. }

As a teacher, it takes practice to use and fade prompting in the classroom. Don’t get discouraged if a student remains at the same level of prompting. Just keep swimming… okay, but really. Practice and learn more about each of these prompting levels so you can integrate the methods seamlessly into your teaching.


I'm a special education teacher, presenter, curriculum writer, and educational blogger behind Mrs. D's Corner.